When the global pandemic arrived in Chico, Pageant Theatre owner Miles Montalbano figured it would pass by quickly. He and his 2020 crew were looking forward to celebrating the Pageant’s 40th anniversary in March.
“We thought the lockdown would last only a couple of months,” he said during a recent interview in the theater.
Little did Montalbano know then that it would be nearly 20 months—November 2021—before he would be able to kick open the theater doors. What he now wants patrons to know is that he used that time to upgrade the theater in multiple ways. The Pageant they will experience today is much improved from the pre-pandemic Pageant.
Back then, though, they had to decide what to do next. At-home streaming services became even more entrenched during the pandemic, and there are no alternative business models when it comes to movie theaters, especially small arthouse theaters like the Pageant.
Check that word “arthouse.” What had kept the Pageant going until the arrival of the pandemic—ironically, coinciding with the anniversary—had been its screening of small-scale independent movies, rather than the expensive blockbusters shown in multiplexes.
“We book movies that we want to see,” Montalbano said. The Pageant’s mission, he says in the theater’s online statement, “is to celebrate the art of film and community by bringing the best in arthouse, independent, world cinema, documentary and classics to town.”
An example: Early last month (December) and shortly after reopening for business, the Pageant screened Benedette, directed by the always provocative Paul Verhoeven. Set among 17th-century nuns, it’s about a sister who becomes entangled in a forbidden lesbian love affair and begins having, as the website synopsis puts it, “scenes of wild religious madness.” You won’t find it at Tinseltown.
To the suggestion that “it’s a quintessential Pageant movie,” Montalbano replied, laughing, “Absolutely. It’s got it all.”
Local documentary filmmaker Al Mitchell founded the Pageant in 1970 and ran it for many years. When he decided to sell, two local guys, Tim Giusta and Roger Montalbano (Miles’ father), took the leap into moviehouse ownership.
With them in charge, the Pageant became firmly established as the alternative to the mall multiplexes. Its popularity served it well for several years, until the movie industry forced a switch to digital projection—at the hefty cost of $50,000 for a new projector at the Pageant. Fans rallied as the theater used online crowdsourcing to raise the money.
For the next several years, things were going well. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly the theater, now owned by Miles, faced an impossible challenge: It had no paying customers, but the bills kept rolling in.
Working now in full partnership with his sister Nicole, Miles applied successfully for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, available as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan.
The grant was remarkably flexible. The feds left it up to Montalbano to decide how to spend the money. “All they asked was to see our budget,” he said.
The grant money enabled him to clear away overdue rent and unpaid back payroll, lift the theater into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, install a new air-filtration system, create dedicated wheelchair spaces and add closed captioning and hearing-assistance headphones.
“The grant really was a gift to us,” Montalbano said. It gave them enough money to last through 2022.
Gone are the popular, but funky, couches at the front of the auditorium. “The couches had to go,” Montalbano said. “They always have a finite lifespan.”
As compensation to regulars, perhaps, the popcorn machine remains in place, and attendees can still buy beer.
For its grand reopening on the weekend of Nov. 26-27, the Pageant called on Jonathan Richman, the famous singer-songwriter and founder of The Modern Lovers. As it happens, Richman is married to Nicole Montalbano and lives in Chico, far from his original East Coast haunts.
A distributor suggested that for its grand reopening, the Pageant hold an advance screening of The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes’ new documentary about the seminal proto-punk band, which features an interview with Richman, who was present at many of the band’s early shows and who knew the members personally. The theater was packed both nights, with Richman helming a lively Q&A following the screenings. The money collected went, in typical Pageant fashion, to the homeless-assistance group Safe Space.
“We’re trying to get the word out that we are here,” Montalbano said. “I hope this is something Chico can support. It’s all about the love of film and our community.”
Now showing: Red Rocket opens Jan. 7. Check website for times and listings for upcoming films.
351 E. Sixth St.